Just Thinking

Dying Beliefs and Still Born Hopes

This article is excerpted from a chapter in Ravi’ s book, Deliver Us From Evil.

Truth is stranger than fiction, it is said, but as Chesterton has appropriately declared, that may well be because we have made fiction to suit ourselves. There is possibly a more disturbing reason for our estrangement from truth, particularly if that truth signifies a reality that is terrifying and unchangeable. Our inability to alter what is actual frustrates our grandiose delusions of being sovereign over everything. And that may be at the heart of why we find truth to be so strange. Remorse-filled situations that are irreversible offer no relief to the one seeking escape from them, because any hope that it was all a dream, or that it is all erasable by merely wishing the opposite, dissipates in the face of a stern concrete certainty.

A heartrending story of such dimensions was shared with me by a friend some years ago–the truth of which seemed much stranger than fiction. To do full justice to the poignancy of the incident necessitates the description of the very surroundings that occasioned my being privy to it. We were sitting in the parking lot of a historic building, an edifice symbolic of the gathering of the gatekeepers of society. There was an air of sophistication about all who entered. I was preoccupied with the theme of an address I was to deliver on the problem of emptiness that stalks our younger generation, growing up in a time of such moral confusion. Just then, the arrival of a rather prominent individual prompted my host, a minister, to recount the story in very somber tones.

“There goes our federal prosecutor,” he said, “a fine man whom I met under very tragic circumstances.” As he labored through the details in recounting their first contact, I knew this was not just another crisis in a minister’s routine, but an ineradicable scar on his pastoral heart.

He told me of a young couple he had married some years ago, who had represented to him every ideal worth emulating. They were the mascot of excellence held up before the youth of the church. Both were in preparation for the practice of medicine, and were on sizable scholarships of merit. As he had driven away after performing their wedding ceremony, he had rehearsed in his own mind what a grand occasion it had been, and that in all his years of ministry he had not seen a more radiant couple. He thrilled at the prospect of all that lay ahead of them.

But then like a shattered dream, only a few months into the marriage there was a dreadful awakening. In the pre-dawn hours of a wintry night the pastor was aroused by the telephone, and a voice out of control which begged him to come to their apartment. The caller, the young man of such promise, kept stuttering the words, “I think I have killed her! I think I have killed her!” The minister hastily dressed and rushed over to their home, only to find the young woman lying lifeless in her bed, and the young husband emotionally ravaged, sobbing inconsolably at her side.

What had happened? What had led to this pitiful state of affairs? After a long time of prying and pleading, the story unfolded. Some weeks earlier this young woman had discovered that she was pregnant. With years of study still ahead, neither of them had wanted to start a family. This sudden turn of events spelled chaos into all their plans, and drove them desperately in search of a solution. Every option was considered. Finally, one statement escaped from the young woman’s lips that she had never dreamed she would utter. “This is completely devastating,” she said. “There is no other way but to abort this child if our careers are to survive.”

The very suggestion precipitated a deep rift between them. They were both known on their campus for their outspoken conviction on the sanctity of the child’s life in the womb, and that that life, they fervently believed, had a right all its own. Now, beyond their control contingencies had invaded their absolutes, and “fate” had threatened their autonomy. Conviction was in conflict with ambition, and a private decision was being made that they hoped would never be betrayed in public. Husband and wife were uncompromisingly on the opposite ends of this dilemma as he pled with her to reconsider.

That is when her final solution was proposed. “Then let us do this at home,” she said. “You bring all the equipment we need to the apartment, and no one need ever know.” As a young medical student, he felt this could be accomplished, and so meticulous plans were nervously laid for that fateful night. Not yet fully trained in the administration of an anesthetic, he stumbled through the procedure and unwittingly gave her a much larger dose than he should have. His greatest fear became a ghastly deed, and he lost her. In the panicking moments that followed, with trembling hands and a cry of desperation he reached for the telephone and uttered those remorse-ridden words, “Pastor, please hurry and come to our apartment. I think I have killed her.”

HEARTWARMING OPTIONS…BONE-CHILLING POSSIBILITIESAnyone who has experienced the immediate or even delayed consequences of a tragic act or event, knows the horror of such a feeling, from which no amount of human ingenuity can bring about an undoing. The most agonizing effect of such irreversibility is the very humbling fact that it was human finitude that brought about the consequence in the first place. It is not my intention to drag this experience into a particular debate on a single moral issue in order to prove one viewpoint or the other. I only share it because in this nightmare of an event, every individual and societal struggle that we as a civilization now face seems crystallized, and the powers of our institutions seem powerless to find a unifying solution. For here, “religious beliefs” collided at cross-purposes with career goals. Here, Church and State met with equal dismay and sorrow. Here, private solutions sought escape from public castigation. Here, technology goaded a mind into a high-risk decision. Here, expediency compromised wisdom. And here, human sovereignty was left crushed by its own hands. In short, the confrontation between religious belief and a preferred lifestyle left a bloody trail.

This demonstrates in extraordinary terms that the moral options we face are more confounding as technology, education, and cultural shifts have become powerful factors in decision-making. At the same time, we are all aware that the maladies we will increasingly face are not going to be restricted to the controversial matters of abortion or sexuality; nor are they going to be in the uncharted terrain of genetic engineering or euthanasia; nor, for that matter, in the vastness of global issues such as violence, ethnic cleansing, or AIDS. Inexorably, our search for more and more is carried on with unprecedented entailments and costs, as new tools and opportunities for which the moral sense seems unprepared become available. These are undoubtedly monumental concerns, and are life-altering in their scope. But as divisive as they are, these issues are only the “above ground” manifestations, and result from a deep foundational shift in our culture whose proud boast is self-determination, and whose legitimizing license provides the very basis for our decision-making. If that foundation (which continues to shift under many strains) settles unevenly, then the once stable infrastructure standing upon it will be imperiled, and a total collapse is only a matter of time.

Of one thing we can be certain: The range of our choices in life will be on the rise. With wealth and knowledge growing exponentially, life has begun to resemble a smorgasbord, where the appetizers are laid before us in an alluring array, making us ever more gluttonous but with proportionately diminishing satisfaction. We need to be reminded that imbibing and disgorging are not just physical problems; they ultimately cut deeply into the very spirit of our human experience. And if recognized too late, the symptoms of the bulimic spirit are destructive of more than the flesh.

Our modern mindset–inundated with choices–must understand, therefore, that it is not just the possibilities of choices that must bear study; the greatest scrutiny must be paid to how and why our individual and societal decisions are made. We are all prone to give due attention to the specific decisions that confront each life and every household unit every day. We are also mindful of how those decisions effect change. But those very decisions are often based on reasons that are not themselves thought through. When the reasons behind the decisions are examined, in numerous instances they prove to be unblushingly spurious and destructive if everyone operated on the same principles. The implications of our choices carry over into what we call “lifestyles.” To the individual they may seem insignificant and personal, but when the mindset of a whole culture is altered in accordance with those choices, the ramifications are staggering.

History is replete with examples of unscrutinized cultural trends that were uncritically accepted and effectuated dramatic changes of national import. And all social analysts agree that there has never been a time as our present when such bold-faced positions are espoused, and such carriers of change prevail. When he was asked why the universe existed Bertrand Russell said, “It’s just there.” The appropriate response to that is to remind Mr. Russell that the question was not one of the existence or non-existence of the universe, but the “why” of its existence. The same applies to every culture. It is not sufficient to say, “This is just so,” when the inquiring mind demands the rationale for its behavior. Culture cannot be dismissed with a “just there” attitude. Cultures have a purpose, and in the whirlwind of possibilities that confront society, reason dictates that we find justification for the way we think, beyond merely existing and choosing.

THE PERIL OF PROXIMITYFew overarching and undergirding influences in life are at once dominant and faltering as the power of a culture. There is implicitly in all of us a tacit surrender to its demands while we supposedly boast individuality and freedom of thought. That entrapment alone ought to alert us to the privilege and peril of being part of a drift that offers change, but carries us unawares into turbulent terrain. This subsuming effect of culture is analogous to the heartbeat of a people. For that reason alone I found a friend’s description of a heart attack he had suffered very pertinent and illustrative. Being only in his thirties when the heart attack occurred and a medical doctor by profession made his description all the more intriguing. He described the pain as different to any other pain he had ever felt. Every prior injury or hurt, whether a broken arm or a sore knee, was always a pain that he saw as a hurt to a part of his body. In some measure he could separate himself from the pain. “But during my heart attack,” he said, “I was in the pain. There is no other way to describe it.” The notion conveyed is instructive–that the very organ that should have been pumping life was instead disseminating pain. That is a powerful statement when one thinks of how a feeling or a mood can be so all-consuming, and can define the core of existence.

I can think of no better analogy to describe such total absorption than the dominant cultural mood that now holds modern men and women in its clutches. So engulfing is its power that we cannot discuss this essential theme of our culture at its crossroads without being locked into it ourselves. We are in it, and are hard-pressed to find a fulcrum outside of it with which to leverage a shift.

IMPERILED BY IMMERSIONThere is an old Chinese proverb which says that if you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish. The reason is that the fish does not know what any other kind of existence offers because it is submerged in the monotony and single vision of a water-logged existence. To the fish, no other existence is possible, and therefore its own is unappraisable in terms of contrast.

That insight also has a message for those immersed in a situation, reminding them that closeness does not guarantee a correct perspective. Sometimes a culture can subliminally and mindlessly absorb ideas into its consciousness and transmit the same, so that it is hard for those within it to be objective about the validity or superiority of its practices when measured against a counter-perspective. In other words, if we want to know what America is like, the surest way to that understanding may not be to ask one who has been culturally American all his or her life.

It is not easy to admit this blind spot that plagues us all and breeds a subtle form of prejudice. I well recall my own struggle with cultural awareness in the early days of my relocation from one part of the world to the other. I would become very agitated whenever I heard a public speaker report on his or her impressions of a recent trip he had taken to the land of my birth, for oftentimes the images conveyed were in terms of shock and speechlessness because of the conditions witnessed–some for good and some for ill. This troubled me greatly for it seemed exaggerative, embellished for the sake of effect, and far removed from my perceptions of life as I had experienced it, growing up in those very surroundings. The annoyance never abated until years later when I returned there for a visit, and was completely unprepared for being overcome by my own reactions to all that I saw and felt. I did not recall being overwhelmed by these same conditions when I had lived there. But now my responses seemed to echo in self-indicting fashion those I had heard described by eyes to whom it was foreign.

The same holds true for a westerner who has lived in the East and returns to the West years later. All of a sudden definitions of wants and needs take on new points of reference. Priorities all become rearranged. There is sometimes more justification in the surprise reaction of unfamiliarity than there is in the desensitization that comes from immersion. We all remember the old analogy of the frog that is gradually boiled when it is first placed in a cauldron of cold water. The frog continues to swim in comfort, oblivious that it is being boiled to its own death. On the other hand, if that same frog were to be placed in boiling water, it would immediately leap out of it for safety. The gradual change was unnoticed and accommodated beyond reason, while the drastic change met with self-preserving common sense.

This is not to deny that being part of a culture brings about a level of comfort with the ways and means by which people live. It is only to caution that familiarity does not guarantee sensibility or objectivity. Proximity is not synonymous with understanding. Indeed, modern technology may mean that proximity makes us more vulnerable to distortion and victimization as the ideas that are thrust upon our imaginations, and the “heroes” that are created everyday by the media, condition our consciousness in ways that make political totalitarianism, by contrast, seem tame. We are unavoidably beguiled in this so-called postmodern world to an unprecedented degree. The constant bombardment of ideas and images fashions the tastes of a whole generation, and results in altered beliefs and lifestyles that make even what was once aberrant gradually seem normal. The double-edged tragedy is that we are not only in such an environment as this, but that any sound of warning that we are being boiled to our own death is contemptuously mocked as insane.

INFORMED BY UNDERSTANDINGIn the midst of this consciousness that seeks control over our sensitivities, we must find a way to understand what is happening to us as a civilization, or we are doomed to destinies of alarming possibilities. For at any given time on this planet of ours, minds are almost certainly at work at a feverish pace–penning modern day versions of Mein Kampf or Das Kapital; wondering what new worlds to conquer or what old hates to avenge; ponderously preparing new technologies that will make our present holdings dissatisfying and obsolete. Some movie mogul somewhere is possibly discussing a script that will tear away at any last vestige of reverence still residing in the human heart. Some new weapon may be in the works that could bring the world to its knees, at the mercy of an autocrat. And while all these possibilities loom, none of us knows what new diseases, atrocities or tragedies await us at the turn of the next century.

Immersed in this mix of change and decay, can we at least understand the dimensions we confront? Can we appeal to our collective conscience, while there still remain in our midst some who are sensitive to the realization that there must be fences in life, else predators, with unrestrained and insatiable passions, will break down every wall of protection, and plunder at will everything we treasure.

Bearing in mind that we are not only near to this cultural explosion but are also, in fact, in it, the better part of wisdom calls first for a diagnosis. What is it we are supposed to be near to and immersed in? The answer to that may at first seem to be protracted, but a simplistic approach for the sake of brevity only adds to the shallowness that is symptomatic of our crisis of thought. When the mindset of a culture has cut deeply into one’s own thought life, the correctives must also be deep.

The first step is to diagnose the moods of the present that mold our modern consciousness, moods that are dictating behavior. Once these are understood we may well be shocked by the realization of how much a victim each of us has become to the molding and manipulative power of culture, and we may well exclaim, “This is true! This is what I have become!” It is only this depth of analysis that awakens us not merely to the decisions that we make each day, but also gives us that incisive understanding of why we have made those decisions, or why we have chosen certain lifestyles. An awareness of the profound impact of culture can be a rude awakening but a necessary one. For it not only reveals the rationality or irrationality of our reasons; it also exposes the inevitable consequences of such choices we make, consequences which we might wish to escape, but find are unalterable.

THE WAY WE SEEOne of the symptoms of modern and postmodern change is the large stock of new words, or certainly the new use of old words–terms such as “user-friendly,” “downsizing,” “multiculturalism,” “politically-correct,” “homophobic,” “postmodern,” “poststructuralism,” and “deconstruction.” If the cartographers of our time are working away furiously to draw up new maps as empires get further subdivided each day, our neologists (those who invent new words) are living at a boom time for their preoccupations. One such word that we are all now accustomed to hearing repeatedly is “secular,” or “secularization.” I would venture to suggest that if we paused long enough we might find ourselves stumbling when asked to define what this word really means. The word itself has a broad sweep, and in differing contexts brings a different spin to the central idea. For our purposes we will concentrate on the term in its social implications, because it is the process of secularization that is one of the most powerful conditioning influences in cultural formation today. Virtually every major decision that is made, and that affects our mind-molding institutions–even in the highest offices of the land–is made on the basis of a secularized worldview. This factor more than anything else is the vantage point behind the emotionally charged debates that are at the forefront of western life, and to varying degrees, in other parts of the world as well.

What does secularization really mean? With a touch of humor and an edge of sarcasm, the following lines summarize this new reigning worldview:

“First dentistry was painless.Then bicycles were chainless,Carriages were horseless,And many laws enforceless.

Next cookery was fireless,Telegraphy was wireless,Cigars were nicotineless,And coffee caffeineless.

Soon oranges were seedless,The putting green was weedless,The college boy was hatless,The proper diet fatless.

New motor roads are dustless,The latest steel is rustless,Our tennis courts are sodless,Our new religion–godless.”(Arthur Guiterman, “Gaily the Troubadour”)

A secular worldview is admittedly and designedly the underlying impetus that presently propels western culture. The central feature of that outlook assumes that this world–the material world–is all that we have by which and for which to live. How all this came about is a historian’s challenge and a sociologist’s occupation. The reality that secularism is the philosophy of choice for American government, and of our culture, is inescapable. Any view of a spiritual essence or of otherworldliness is by definition considered irrelevant or irrational. Secularism, or “saeculum,” is implicitly “this worldly.”

Peter Berger, the renowned sociologist and Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, defines secularization as “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.” He expands on this in the following way:

“When we speak of society and institutions in modern western history, of course, secularization manifests itself in the evacuation by the Christian churches of areas previously under their control or influence as in the separation of Church and State…or in the emancipation of education from ecclesiastical authority. When we speak of culture and symbols, however, we imply that secularization is more than a social-structural process. It affects the totality of cultural life and of ideation, and may be observed in the decline of religious content in the arts, in philosophy, in literature and, most important of all, in the rise of science as an autonomous, thoroughly secular perspective on the world.” (Berger, The Sacred Canopy, New York: Doubleday, 1990).

The choice of words Berger makes is very interesting indeed, and the broad sweep that his lines encompass is of enormous importance: “The evacuation of the church…the emancipation of education.” The former speaks of a fleeing body, the latter of a liberation of the enshackled mind. All of the images stirred up are emotionally charged, and are alluring as a study in themselves. Simply stated, this definition of secularization asserts that public life is to be governed by laws that are not influenced by religion, or any transcendent sacred notion.

GENTLE WORDS, HARSH REALITIESHowever, lest we get too far afield, I shall borrow from a more poignant definition that will focus on the aortic valve of secularization as it enables the flow of ideas which energize our current culture. Social analyst Os Guinness defines secularization as “the process by which religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance.”

Herein lies not only the heart, but the will of the issue as crafted by the protagonists of secularism. Religious ideas have been rendered senseless in the social arena by the gladiators of the intellect. This is indeed stronger language than terms like “evacuation.” Eviction is the more accurate term, and for some, public eradication and humiliation of all religious belief would even be the goal. If free enterprise as an economic theory allows for competition in the marketplace to determine what the consumer wants, then by the same process, secularization has conveyed to those who promote religious ideas that the consumer does not want them bidding for any of their “products” in matters of state. It all sounds very harmless and perhaps even fair, but the intended banishment goes far beyond a mere separation of identity.

The contention being made here–that this is not a mild-mannered drawing of the lines but, more accurately, a hostile take-over–is not even slightly overstated. No one with any real knowledge of our moral struggles today will deny this philosophical attack upon the moorings of contemporary society. The effect of secularization in rendering religious convictions inadmissible in the public arena is touted in vengeful terms. Philosophy has vanquished Theology; Reason has embarrassed Faith.

As a test of this thesis, imagine with me a scenario featured on a prime time television program. A volatile moral issue that divides the nation is being discussed by a panel of experts. If that panel were comprised of an educator, a philosopher, a civil libertarian, a politician, a lawyer, a journalist, and a minister, who would be considered by the listening audience to be the most “biased” or “irrelevant” on the subject, and therefore, the least credible? Without a doubt, it would be the minister.

As much as one would seek to be irenic and conciliatory on this sad prejudice, it is fatuous to deny that in academia, and even more so in the media, the person in ministry today is often portrayed with ridicule or bias. It is not uncommon for hostility to be vented against the one who comes with a Christian perspective on any issue. The title “Reverend,” especially if borne by one of a conservative stripe, is represented as denoting anything but scholarship. The assumption is blatantly made that all who are “this worldly” are either well-informed or transcendently objective, or both. They supposedly have no hidden agendas, and possess no ulterior motive of trying to bring society under repressive views. At the same time, it is implied that it is only the religious who are bigoted and prejudiced, who seek to put culture’s head under their tyrannical heels.

When religious ideas are discussed, they are most often conveyed as oppressive or antiquated. Seven decades after the Scopes Trial there is still a clear aspersion in the discussion of that event, casting the religionist as the butt of the rationalists’ ridicule. The one who believes in God as the author of the universe is dismissed as an intellectual dinosaur who has out-lived his or her usefulness, and who ought not to continue to exist. The witch hunts that seek to destroy belief in the sacred depict religious belief as unwelcome and prejudicial. “Alas! let us show God-talk for what it is,” they say, “full of ignorance and repression, signifying hate and intolerance.” It is little wonder, therefore, that students entering university are very guarded about their religious belief for fear of being outcasts in the world of learning.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?This is a radical inversion, is it not? For at one time the educated were the churchmen, and the halls of learning were founded by those in religious leadership. In a strange twist the secular powers charge that it is religious exploitation that has brought about our present situation, and therefore, it is payback time.

It is important then to understand how this state of affairs came to be. Let us look at it in two stages. The first will be to trace the evolution of secularism from being merely a voice among many vying for allegiance to becoming the reigning mind-set, having the power to grant or ban admissibility of all other views. The second will be to bring a full understanding of where secularization leads in its logical outworking. The latter is felt in practical terms, while the former–the analyses of the antecedents of the secularist mood–is unwittingly ignored as purely academic. To be fair and accurate, both aspects are important if one is to counter the situation with intelligence. The causes and the results are with us today. Not only are they both important for understanding, but also for appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of a secular perspective. We have much to learn from that worldview.

Our focus in this instance will be the secularization of America as we see within this nation both the zenith of western culture and the nadir, if a secularized worldview becomes sovereign in matters of moral direction. We must come to grips with that result. It will not do to cling to the cause and wish the result away. Reality does not play mind games. What is more, to anesthetize the mind in order to abort what of necessity comes to birth when wrong ideas are conceived and are borne in the womb of culture, will kill the very life-giving force of the nation that nurtures that idea. It does little when life is lost to cry out, “I think I have killed her.”

This article is excerpted from a chapter in Ravi’ s book, Deliver Us From Evil.

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